With so many trains to catch, it was inevitable that I’d miss one. Yesterday morning I didn’t make it across the bay from The City (San Francisco) to The Town (Oakland) in time to catch the 9:10 train toward Chicago.
After 40 mintues of running in frantic circles around the Market District, I tried to hail a cab to take me over. “Can you get me to Emeryville Amtrak for a 9:10 train?”
The driver looked at the time. “You’re not going to make it. There’s too much traffic.”
I moved to the side and fumed, not sure whether to be angry Amtrak for not routing the train through San Francisco proper but making passengers load onto shuttle busses out of the city, at the shuttle bus driver who dropped me off three days earlier and pointed haphazardly to the Amtrak bus stop (“It’s over there, in front of Bloomingdale’s”), at my smart phone navigation app for directing me to the wrong side of the block, or at the shuttle bus driver who didn’t stop when I tried to wave him down after finally finding the Amtrak bus stop.
In reality, though, I could only be mad at myself for not waking up an hour earlier, for not figuring out exactly where the stop was, for not listening to my pal Chris Krohne, who I was staying with, when he told me just to take the BART under the bay.
Admittedly, Chris was right about more than the commute across the bay. I should’ve listened when he told me I had no business at Fisherman’s Wharf. Shuffling irritated among the throngs of tourists by the commercialized docks, I asked, What am I doing here? while performers played bad reggae and tourists not looking stepped all over my feet.
I also should’ve listened to Chris when he told me not to go to the Golden Gate Bridge but instead to take beer and a notebook to Dolores Park, mingle with the youths of the city, and watch them at play on a Wednesday afternoon. Looking out from the welcome center at the bridge obscured in fog–its two red peaks hidden in the clouds–I thought, Damn, I did it again. Tourists.
After a few minutes dodging hyper-energized children and travelers hooked up to cameras and fanny bags, I got back on that bus, made it to the park with the dogs and dreadlocks, blankets and puffs of smoke, and felt among my people.
Chris was right about the carnitas fries even though we’d had Mexican food each of the previous two nights. They were drowning in pork and cheese and topped with guacamole salad. He has a way of sniffing out authenticity in each city, of finding the good eats, of making fast friends with bartenders who sling him free drinks, of differentiating between activities meant for tourists and those for locals.
I, however, seem to stumble into the tourist traps of all the cities I visit, claiming to seek the opposite. The tourism industry has a way of funneling visitors into those zones where merchants and attractions monetize culture and industry, and I guess I have a way of going with the flow.
But for the three nights I was in San Francisco, when I met up with Chris in the early evening after he got out of work, I felt more real, less like a monetary unit from Florida and more like that observant eye in search of America. Chris and I trucked around The Mission and Castro District in The City. He introduced me to his bar fly friends: Scott the skateboard promoter, Applejack the musician who collaborates with Boz Scaggs.
On the third night Chris and I went to see Applejack spin records in The Mission. He played sweet soulful music from on LP–actual records! Then we did our normal trek through block after block of the city, apprising the numerous murals, appreciating the city bus slogan “Equality for All,” and discussing America.
Chris and I talked a lot about our country in the three days. As you’d imagine for a person who gets opportunity thrown at him wherever he goes, Chris has a lot of opinions about how to live in our country. Our conversations were long and meandering, too unweildly to recreate for you here, but I will share Chris’s two keys in the modern age for fulfilling the American Dream: 1. Always say Yes. Not to pyramid schemes, but to every chance and adventure that comes your way. 2. Don’t listen to your parents*. Chris says they sucked up all the opportunity and now expect us to earn keep for them.
When Chris asked me what I’ve learned about America so far, I said that people don’t realize–or purposely deny–the beauty of our natural landscapes and the diversity of the people who inhabit them. Train travel slows life down to a ruminative crawl and encourages you to inspect each passing mile, enjoy the company of your fellow travelers. I’ve also learned that Americans love to talk politics. Maybe this tendency is caused by the election year, but Americans tend to have strong opinions about where this country is headed. Almost all believe our country is heading into the hands of the corporations who buy elections, becoming a corporatocracy that considers grabbing the almight dollar from its citizens the only goal. Economical solutions for solving our dilemma differ, but it seems that everyone talking politics on the train (a limited sample group, I concede) feels that either a vote for the right or a vote for the left is a vote for the big businesses who own our elections.
And the media. Distracting. Inefficient. Blathering. Don’t get Americans started on the media.
So that’s the America I’ve found so far. Adventuresome, multifarious, complicated, ever-changing and at a crossroads between the corporate stranglehold and people’s rights. Will this be a landmark election? Probably not. Do our citizens share the feeling that America must undergo systematic change in order to remain great among the countries of the world? You betcha.
I write this from the observation deck of the California Zephyr which runs between San Francisco and Chicago, looking out over arid Nevada. At 3:30am I’ll get off in Salt Lake City. A couple days later, the same train to Denver. Then I’m going to Kansas City on my way through St. Louis. I’m not yet sure why I’m going to St. Louis, except for that televised Paul McCartney concert I watched when I was 12 in which he sang about standing on the corner of Twelfth Street and One. I guess I’ll find out when I get there. Maybe to do laundry.
*Chris Krohne’s views don’t necessarily reflect Haney on the Train’s opinions.